Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Those books you don't want to read...

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter


A small town.
A brutal murder.
A violent killer…

This week we are going back to look at an older crime/thriller novel. I will admit, I am about 15 years late with this one!

For years my partner has tried to get me to read Karin Slaughter's Grant County series. For some unbeknownst reason I have been reluctant to try reading any of the books. I'm not sure if it is because of some of the comparisons to other authors I have mixed opinions about, a belief that they were going to be just another forensics knowledge exhibition or perhaps just simply bad timing every other time my partner had suggested I try them but for whatever reason I had not read any of this series. Having thoroughly enjoyed 'Blindsighted', the first book of the Grant County series, I now regret not trying them a lot sooner.

Blindsighted introduces us to Sara Linton, a paediatrician and medical examiner who lives in the small town of Heartsdale, Georgia. The story hits the ground running when Sara finds Sibyl Adams brutally raped and murdered in the toilets of the local diner. Sara's ex husband, the local police chief, Jeffrey Tolliver, is called and an investigation begins. It soon becomes apparent that this is unlikely to be a one off attack and the race is on to find whoever is responsible before they attack again.

I really enjoyed this one. I'm often wary of books with medical examiners or police officers as the main characters. So often authors get bogged down with wanting to show off their knowledge of forensics or police procedures that it gets in the way of the story. Whilst I believe the author should be knowledgeable about such things, I don't feel like it should be used as a substitute for a great cast of characters and an intriguing plot. For me the technical side of solving crime should not take centre stage and leave you wanting more in terms of an actual story. Karin Slaughter has perfected this in my opinion. I never doubt for a minute that she is up to speed on forensics and police procedure. There are enough tit bits thrown in that it is obvious the author knows what they are talking about. However the story doesn't constantly grind to a halt every time a body is examined or a scene takes place in the police station. The pace is kept high throughout with only the necessities of technical information thrown into the mix.

The story is told from the third person perspective of three different characters. Sara Linton, Jeffrey Tolliver and Lena Adams, another police officer who has a lot invested in finding the killer due to her sister Sybil being their first victim. All three characters are very interesting to read about, particularly the relationships between them all and their different motivations for finding the killer as soon as possible. There is also a supporting cast of characters who are not such major players but are still fleshed out with interesting stories to tell nonetheless. The small town community where everybody knows and seemingly trusts everybody else provides a fantastic setting for this story as people's trust begins to diminish.

A lot of criticism seems to be levelled at this book due to the graphic violence involved. This didn't really bother me that much if I am honest. Life is full of disgustingly brutal violence every single day. Turn on the news and you will see real life examples of rape and murder which is every bit as vicious as the violence involved in this book if not worse and it is really happening. With that level of violence in real life I think it would be stupid of authors to try and sugar coat things in fiction. However, if you are somebody who is really put off by violence then maybe give this one a miss.

I'm going to rate this one as a 5 out of 5 and apologise to my partner for not giving it a chance the first time she tried to get me to read it! I will definitely be reading the other books in this series soon. Karin Slaughter has created a cast of characters that you really want to read about, even those who are only briefly mentioned add something to this depiction of small town Georgia. Despite the subject matter this read very easily. A very enjoyable read which you will struggle to put down once you get into it. If like me you have managed to not read this at any point in the last 15 years, I highly recommend you give it a go now.

So how about you, which books have you irrationally been reluctant to read only to really enjoy them when you finally gave them a chance?

Monday, 22 February 2016

A Sneak Peek Of Some Future Book Reviews

It's getting towards the end of another month which can only mean one thing...Amazon book haul! You know how it goes, despite beginning your search with the best of intentions you soon have a basket filled with books you hadn't planned on buying.

This month I had convinced myself that I was going to buy some non fiction books to help research for the novel I keep trying to write. I would possibly also treat myself to one or two fiction books which I could review alongside some books I already own.
As you can see, I didn't quite keep my promise to myself. I still don't think I have done too badly, 6 books isn't the end of the world and I did still order the non fiction books in addition.

To be fair, I am pretty sure that 'On Writing' can be moved into the research pile. After all it is partly a book about writing from one of the masters, so I can forgive myself that one. Plus you can't really buy a non fiction Steven King book and not buy a fiction effort as well. It just wouldn't be right so I guess 'Mr Mercedes' was a necessary purchase as well.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a Japanese Translation. They always say that you should constantly broaden your horizons and experience other cultures. I'm fairly confident that this fits the bill so I am also confident that I can forgive myself this purchase as well.

I guess that leaves just the three books which I have splurged on. They were on offer though. 3 books for £10 is a great deal, you can't pass that up! So really I had to buy them. I simply had no choice I'm afraid.

All in all that means I have bought 6 totally necessary books. I'm really proud of myself for managing to buy only books that I really needed this month.
How about you? Have you behaved yourself and shown such restraint when book shopping this month?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising? 1916 – 2016 by James Heartfield & Kevin Rooney


From what we know there is little doubt that the leaders knew that they would lose, and most likely die – Connolly said so, and Pearse said that there would have to be a blood sacrifice for Ireland. This is a way of thinking that is pretty alien to today's postmodern bourgeois liberal for whom there is no cause worth dying for.

This week I will be reviewing a non fiction book...please don't run away! It's a fantastic read, I promise! 

A quick disclaimer – Kevin Rooney was my Politics teacher when I was taking my A levels almost 10 years ago and was probably the best teacher I ever had. At a time when I no longer wanted to be at school and was only taking A levels because it was expected of me due to my perceived academic ability he managed to motivate me and keep me working hard. Something which no other teacher managed during that time period. That said, this has had limited influence on my review. I did not get a free copy and I am not reviewing this as a favour. In fact I haven't seen or spoken with my old politics teacher in the decade since I left school, he probably wouldn't even remember me now. Whilst I guess it is impossible to be entirely objective when reading a book by somebody you have known, I have tried my hardest to keep this review fair and unbiased.

'Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?' looks to discuss the 100 years which have passed since Irish revolutionaries proclaimed a republic from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin. The authors take aim at the Irish governments reluctant efforts to mark the centenary and their decision to not acknowledge it with it's own celebrations, instead banding it in with several other notable centenary celebrations. The book looks back at the events surrounding the 1916 uprising and the shock waves that were felt around the world in it's aftermath. Discussing the influence that this act of rebellion had at various pivotal moments in recent history, the authors explore the changing attitudes towards the Easter rising over the last century. From an inspiring event which helped to begin further rebellions across the world to a potential source of embarrassment and shame for the current regime. The significance of the rebellion is explored, with a lot of time spent discussing how it helped to end the first world war and to spark revolutions in countries such as Russia and India. It also looks at what influence it may have had in the troubles which have plagued Ireland for many years and explores the different ways revisionists have chosen to rewrite the history surrounding the events of 1916.

The authors never attempt to hide their own political leanings at any point during this book and yet they still attempt to provide a balanced and reasoned argument throughout. This is by no means a propaganda piece or an attempt to persuade you to a particular way of thinking. This is a meticulously researched piece which looks at how various parties have twisted the events of 1916 to further their own agendas. Whilst the authors opinions are scattered throughout, they are always backed up with evidence to support whatever point is being made. This is not just an opinion piece, ignoring facts or misappropriating them to fit with the authors on viewpoints.

I found it to be an absorbing read. The idea that the Easter Rising was the first step towards the ending of WW1 and the catalyst for revolutions in Russia and India made for a very interesting read. I was unaware of how much the people of India looked to Ireland for inspiration during their own fight for independence from the British empire. The discussion of the British empire and it's treatment of it's colonies as well as its own people makes this a must read for me personally. Despite being written about the Easter Rising of 1916 the authors have managed to make this book relevant to so much more. There are a lot of parallels between the ideas being discussed from a historical perspective and the world we live in today. Some of these are pointed out, such as the way in which Britain deceived Germany in the lead up to the great war and the way in which America copied this with how they dealt with Saddam Hussein. Other parallels are obvious to the reader but not addressed specifically in terms of recent examples by the authors, such as the use of patriotism and xenophobia as a means to distract people from their own social inequalities. These parallels make the book so relevant in the current political climate and it is alarming at how readily we are heading towards repeating historical mistakes which we should have already learnt from. Perhaps if we all read a little bit more than it would not be so easy for these issues to keep arising. As they say, knowledge is power.

So that being said, I am going to rate this as a 5 out of 5 and highly recommend that you read it!

Mr Rooney, If you have ended up reading this review somehow, thank you for being such an inspiring teacher and I apologise for not being the best student I could have been at the time. Hopefully you get round to writing some more books soon!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Voodoo, Murder & Louis Armstrong

The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin


New Orleans, 1919.
As Music Fills The City,
A Serial Killer Strikes…

The Axeman's Jazz is based on the real life mystery of the New Orleans based serial killer known as the axeman. Between 1918 and 1919 the axeman of New Orleans killed 6 people. To this day, the person responsible for the killings remains unknown. There are numerous suspects and historians have theorised several possible explanations for the unsolved case and yet it remains just that, an unsolved case.

The story is told from multiple different third person perspectives. The three main perspectives which are told throughout are those of Michael Talbot, Luca d'Andrea and Ida Davis & Louis Armstrong.
Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot is in charge of the official investigation regarding the axeman killings. He is a hard working police officer who is disliked by the majority of his fellow officers due to his involvement in putting his corrupt mentor behind bars.
Luca d'Andrea is a former detective who has recently been released after serving 6 years in Angola. He had been an officer for many years but was imprisoned after his protégée Michael exposed his links to the New Orleans Mafia. He has been asked by the head of the New Orleans Mafia to investigate the axeman killings and to kill the person responsible before the police find them.
Ida Davis is a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency with a penchant for Sherlock Holmes mysteries. With a hunch about the axeman killings Ida talks her friend Louis Armstrong into helping her with a real life investigation as they attempt to find out the truth behind the killings. And yes, it is that Louis Armstrong.

This is a brilliant book from start to finish. Every perspective is equally intriguing and the pacing keeps tension high throughout. I like the idea of all the perspectives being from different cultures, allowing them to find clues and explore areas that other characters can't enter due to the racial tensions of the time. It also adds to the tension and feeling of real danger when some characters do choose to cross over to the wrong side of town.
Things don't move quite as quickly as some other thrillers; there is plenty of time spent exploring post WW1 Louisiana, from the seedy brothels of Storyville to the remoteness of the shacks built in the bayou. The impact of the war and prohibition of both alcohol and prostitution are explored as are the racial tensions which arose from so many different cultures living in such close proximity and yet the story never feels like it is spinning it's wheels. Every description helps to set the scene and exploration of the history surrounding this time period helps to further the story, there is no filler for the sake of bulking things out.

This is a historical fiction. I want to highlight the fact that it is a work of fiction as it would appear from some reviews that this seems to have passed some people by. It is obvious that the author has done his research but the cold hard facts are not strictly stuck to. I have no issue with this, I read fiction primarily to be entertained. The facts which are contained in this novel are an interesting bonus but if I wanted to know simple truths I would be reading non fiction efforts about the time period instead. I have seen one review label this as a one star rating because the historical references are not 100% accurate. I found it baffling that somebody would take such issue with a work of fiction not being totally factual. Their main issue seemed to lie with the fact that the hurricane in 1919 hit New Orleans in September and not at the same time as the axeman killings were happening. Have we recalled all creative licenses from authors who base their works of fiction on real events? Talking of facts, the fact that famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong is playing detective in this one should have given it away that not everything contained in the pages of this book would be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Obviously as well as stretching the truth to create more excitement, this book also provides the authors take on who could have been responsible for the killings. Nobody was ever caught in real life so again the revelations in this book are a work of fiction based largely on fictional characters. I found the story compelling and I am extremely happy to hear that the author is working on a follow up novel which will contain some of the characters which have been introduced during this book. These are characters you will fall in love with and want to keep reading about. The dialogue is not authentic to the time or region yet I feel this is to the books benefit. An entire book filled with southern dialect of the time period would make for tougher reading and a lot of time would be spent by readers not from the region attempting to figure out what characters were trying to say. An accent is alluded to in the way some characters speak but dialogue is still kept accessible for all readers.

It feels like I have spent this whole review trying to address the issues that keep popping up in negative reviews and that i'm possibly trying to talk up a poor book. This is far from the case. In fact I would give this book a 5 out of 5 rating. Despite peoples issues with authentic dialogue and historical accuracy this book did everything I expected of it; It entertained me from beginning to end. I loved the descriptions of the setting, I enjoyed the factual tit bits that it offered (despite some inaccuracies there are also a lot of true aspects), I loved the characters and I was gripped by the story right through to the final sentences! After my disappointment with 'I Let You Go' I was extremely happy to find this one lived up to my high expectations.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Death, Grief, Guilt & The Beautiful Welsh Coast

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh


A tragic accident.
It all happened so quickly.
She couldn't have prevented it.
Could she?

'I let you go' begins in the aftermath of a hit and run which leaves 5 year old Jacob dead in the road outside of his single mother's house. To begin with the story is told from two different perspectives; a third person perspective of detective inspector Ray Stevens who is in charge of the hit and run investigation and a first person perspective of Jenna Gray who in the aftermath of the accident has moved to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, eager for a fresh start.

This is going to be one of the most frustrating reviews I have written, and is about one of the most frustrating books that I have ever read. It is going to be extremely difficult to talk about this one without giving away any spoilers due to the story being told in two parts with various big reveals throughout. Even the first few chapters are filled with potential spoilers for those guessing the twists which lay ahead so I will refrain from discussing any specific plot details. I apologise in advance for the vagueness that may lie ahead in this review, I just really don't wish to spoil anything if you decide to give this one a go.

I will be honest, I REALLY didn't like the first half of this book. If it wasn't for the fact that I was planning to write this review I probably would have given up at the predictable reveal which ends part one. Within the first couple of chapters I turned to my better half and described to her exactly where I thought the story was going. I was totally right, in fact I managed to guess the majority of the story from fairly early on and only one detail was missing from my description. Now as I have said previously, I don't really mind guessing the outcome of a story early on if it still manages to entertain me; Unfortunately, part one of this book did anything but entertain me.

I found the characters fairly clichéd. I especially disliked reading the perspective of the police who all seemed very boring two dimensional characters. Every twist could be seen coming from a mile away and I just found it a real slog to get through. I was massively disappointed. This book had been highly recommended and I was really looking forward to it. Perhaps if I hadn't been looking for a potential twist I might not have worked things out so quickly and this may have seemed more exciting and less predictable for me. I guess that is the danger of printing rave reviews over a book cover proclaiming that I was about to read a story with 'an astonishing twist'. When part one came to an end in exactly the way I was expecting I just rolled my eyes, put the book down for the night and contemplated whether or not to even bother reading the second part. I'm glad that I did.

Part two is far closer to the book I was hoping to read. The predictably clichéd characters from part one suddenly got that bit more interesting. The plot started to pick up and began to hold my interest. A new character is introduced and their perspective is a big part of why the second half of this book becomes so compelling. If this review was based off of just part two of this book it would be getting a wonderful write up. I'm aware that stories need to be set up in the beginnings of books, characters need to be introduced and things will usually be less frantic so that the home straight seems that bit more exciting. That said, if I had given up half way through as I was considering then I would never have got to the good stuff. 
In the interest of being fair I will state that my lack of enjoyment from the first half of this book could just be because I saw things coming from so early on. Perhaps my mind works in a similar way to the author and despite their best efforts to shield the truth from the reader I just saw through the red herrings easily and that is why I found it predictable and unenjoyable. There is every chance that you could pick this one up tomorrow and not spot what is coming and be blown away when the reveals happen. My recommendation would be to not think too much, don't try to figure things out, just keep reading and enjoy the reveals when they happen.

I think it would be fairer for me to rate both halves of this book separately. I would give the first part a 2 out of 5, possibly a 3 at a stretch. Having guessed the outcome (and being so sure that I was right) I couldn't buy into the red herrings and the reveals came as no big surprise. With so much being shielded in this first part the characters come across as very simple and fairly clichéd. However as I said there is a real possibility that without guessing the twist, they may seem more interesting to you. The plot may still take you by surprise. Unfortunately, I cannot go back in time and read part one again without trying to work out the twists to see if it makes a difference to the overall enjoyment of this part of the book. I hope if you decide to give this one a go you can put your amateur sleuth skills to bed early and read without trying to guess what is coming.

As for part two, I would rate it as a solid 4 out of 5. The pace picks up considerably, the characters, new and old, are far more interesting and the plot does hold some good twists towards the end. Overall this one was not as good as I had hoped, but even more frustratingly part two showed all the signs of being brilliant, it's a real shame that part one detracted so much from my overall enjoyment. Part two was good enough that I will be keeping a look out for any future novels from Clare Mackintosh as I really think there will be some great books to come. As début novels go this is still a very good starting point and I hope the next book will be as good throughout as the second half of this was. I think we all have those books that are hyped up for a long time and fail to meet our unrealistically lofty expectations, unfortunately this was one of mine.

Monday, 1 February 2016

My Serial Killer Co-Worker & Other Imagined Tales

So you have a dream of becoming a writer?

You've treated yourself to a shiny new laptop, a new coffee machine and set up new social media accounts to promote your work via. You are feeling great as you turn on the laptop that is soon to be used to write your masterpiece. You have the perfect playlist of music lined up to help motivate you, the view offered by the window in your newly created writing space is inspiring and you are eager to get started.

You open up your computer’s word processor and are presented with a wonderful blank canvas upon which you will paint YOUR story. That story that has been bursting to get out of you for what seems like an eternity.
Except now you can't quite remember what your story was going to be about. The blank page before you now seems to taunt you as you desperately try to come up with something interesting to write about. It soon dawns on you that your life isn't actually that exciting and you can't seem to draw inspiration from anywhere to help start writing something that might just turn into a best seller.

The longer you stare at the screen, thinking back through every aspect of your life for something interesting to write about, the worse your mental block seems to become. Exasperated by your efforts you slam your laptop shut with a satisfying thud and retreat to the kitchen to make yourself a coffee, only to find that you have no sugar!

Throwing on a baseball cap to cover your bad hair day and pulling on a coat to help you brave the cold weather, you make your way to the shop a few minutes walk away from your house. Catching sight of your reflection in a store window you realise that you are far from looking your best and begin to feel self conscious, believing that everybody is staring at you, perhaps you should have taken the time to make yourself more presentable. 

Upon entering the shop you realise that the shelves are very poorly stocked, with next to nothing available and seemingly no staff working to improve things. After waiting by the counter for a minute or two the shops owner comes out from the back and asks if they can help you. After a few minutes of sorting through the delivery which has just come in the owner triumphantly returns with a bag of sugar for you, you pay and are back on your merry way after exchanging the usual pleasantries on your way out. 

The sky above you has taken a turn for the worse and the dark clouds swirling above you seem to be moving worryingly quickly. The first droplets of rain fall on your face as you are watching the clouds. Cursing your luck you begin to hurry home. 

As you round the corner onto your street you notice a car stopped next to your house. It isn't parked and you can't see through the tinted windows to see who is driving. Being alone you feel uneasy and wonder who is inside and what they are doing sitting in such a car outside of your house. As you get closer the passenger door opens and out jumps a child dressed in the uniform for the school just down the road. You breathe a sigh of relief and feel slightly foolish for having worried. After all, who else would it have been?

At this point you may have resigned yourself to the idea of putting writing on hold until something exciting happens that you can use as inspiration for your novel. But wait! What if you had just encountered some great starting points on your walk to the shops? Nothing exciting happened, you say, I just bought some sugar from the local shop. Wrong!

What if at the point when you believed that everybody was staring at you they really were? What if it wasn't just your anxiety born of being out looking less than your best? Perhaps you are somebody of note and people recognise you. Perhaps you don't even realise you are this person. If that is the case why don't you realise who you are? Why is it that people seem to know who you are? Think Sterling Archer believing that he is actually Bob from Bob's Burgers rather than one of the worlds most infamous secret agents. Yes, Archer & Bob's Burger references...somebody call Kenny Loggins!

What if the shop wasn't poorly stocked and understaffed because it was time for that weeks delivery? What if you had stumbled into a post apocalyptic nightmare and supplies were beginning to run out? What has happened to lead to this point? How have you managed to survive this long? How are you going to help get the world back to the place it was before whatever disaster has taken place happened?

The dark clouds were swirling quickly because of strong winds and a storm was about to begin, right? Wrong! The god's in your alternate reality are pissed off and coming down to earth. Or perhaps an alien spacecraft is creating the strange phenomenon. It really could be anything!

What about that car with tinted windows that was sitting ominously outside of your house? That was just a child being dropped off to school late wasn't it? Perhaps in the real world it was but imagine if it was actually an unmarked police car waiting to arrest you for something that you have done. Perhaps it is your former friends from a life of crime you used to be a part of who have finally caught up with you. What if it was somebody waiting to snatch you off the streets and hold you prisoner in an abandoned warehouse?

I'm sure you get the idea now. We all believe that nothing exciting really happens to us, and in reality that is true for most of us but that doesn't stop our imaginations from going wild. Look around you every time that you are out and about, you never know what story might be unfolding. 
That person tailgating you may really be trying to run you off the road. That person who you locked eyes with for the briefest of moments before your trains went their separate ways really could have been the love of your life, your one true chance of happiness. The co worker you always feel uneasy around may really be living a double life, perhaps they are in fact a serial killer yet to be caught. Your neighbour who you haven't seen for a week or two; are they on holiday or has something more sinister happened? Who knows? Let your imagination run wild. Don't wait for something exciting to happen to you. Use every mundane detail of your real life as inspiration for something far more exciting.

Go out and make the ordinary...extraordinary!